Plenty of time for Edwards, other winless drivers to bounce back
A day before his strong but ill-fated run at Richmond, Carl Edwards said not to count him out for the championship.
At that point, eight races into the season, Edwards had led one lap and was the only driver at Roush Fenway Racing without a Sprint Cup victory.
He remains winless after Saturday night's race -- a penalty on a restart doomed him to a 10th-place finish. With the series a quarter of the way through its 36-race season, Edwards is one of a number of drivers looking to improve before the Chase field is set in September.
Joining Edwards among those without a victory this season are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle Busch graduated from that club Saturday night, becoming the seventh different winner in the first nine races.
Tony Stewart showed last season that a driver can suffer a drought and still win the championship. After a hot start where he nearly won four of the first seven races, Stewart stumbled in the summer. From Dover in mid-May through Bristol in August, he had as many finishes outside the top 20 (five) as he did top-10 results. Yet, Stewart made the Chase and won half of the 10 races to claim the title.
With that in mind, Edwards has not panicked about the start of his season.
"We learned firsthand, getting beat by a guy last year that wasn't hardly in the picture until the last 10 races, we are gearing up to be the best we can at the end of the year,'' Edwards said. "We have strength in our team right now and don't have a giant weak point. We don't have a big problem anywhere. We just have to start putting together better races and making better calls and qualify a little better. There are some little things we have to work on. I think we will get there and I tell you what, just don't count us out. We could be really good."
So could many others. Being winless at this point does not mean a driver won't win or contend for a title. Brad Keselowski was winless and 28th in the points after nine races a year ago. He went on to win three races and finish fifth in the points. Stewart and Denny Hamlin were winless through the first quarter of the 2009 season but each went on to win four races and place in the top six in points.
So time and hope remain for those without a victory.
Johnson's sixth-place finish Saturday marked his seventh top-10 in nine starts. The only other driver with as many top-10s this year is his teammate, Earnhardt. Johnson failed to finish in the top 10 at Daytona when he was wrecked on the second lap and Martinsville when he was spun on a late restart while running second.
"My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top five, especially the top three week after week, you're going to win your fair share of races,'' said Johnson, who has not gone this deep into a season without a victory since 2003 when his first victory came in the 12th race of the year.
"Although there are times I've left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be -- or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it -- I still really believe in that philosophy and I'm very happy with how we're running and the speed we have in our cars.''
After placing second at Richmond, Earnhardt was thrilled with his team, particularly his pit crew's performance, praising them on the radio.
"The team is confident, we're feeling good,'' he said. "We feel like we're competing well. [We're] really close to winning a race. We ain't really raced for a win yet and lost one, so I wouldn't count tonight. But we're getting better at running the top-five and top-10s. We'll just try to keep doing that.''
Much has been made about Gordon's tough luck this season but that's an easy crutch. Certainly, he's had misfortune, but it also doesn't help that the team has not qualified well this season. With cautions seemingly as scarce as water in the desert, starting deep in the field makes it harder to advance toward the front.
Gordon has started in the top 10 three times -- all at short tracks. His best starting position at any other track is 16th at Daytona and Las Vegas. While he finished fourth at Texas despite little help from cautions after starting 34th, that's not a sustainable path for him or anyone else going forward.
"We've run great in the races this year,'' Gordon said the day before the Richmond race. "We haven't qualified very good, but we've been awesome in the races and we're [17th] in points. So sometimes you can be a great, fast race car and lead a bunch of laps and struggle. ... When you get fast race cars, you don't panic as much. You don't worry. You just keep trying to improve the things that you can improve. But when your cars aren't running good, then I'll tell you what, it's easy to lose your confidence in a hurry with that."
Even with a victory on Saturday, Busch knows there's more work to do with his team at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"The mile-and-a-halves -- I feel like I'm a little bit behind there, just don't quite know what it takes to be fast,'' Busch said. "[Teammate] Denny [Hamlin] has really figured it out over the years, [and we've] been able to work together. So we're working on that, getting better.
"You know, to evaluate our program we feel like we've definitely had some ups and downs. We definitely feel like we haven't run to the competitiveness that we want to. You know, we're not out there leading all the laps and running up front and doing what [points leader Greg] Biffle has been able to do or Martin Truex has been able to do or some of those guys.
"But I think ... those guys at MWR, they've run a lot better this year, and it's great to see they've learned a lot of things from what we've been doing over the past and it's our turn to learn from what they've been doing and make ourselves better yet and to try to just keep doing that to make all of our organizations successful.''